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Thomas A. Edison: The Wizard of Menlo Park

It is probable that when Edison opened his laboratory at Newark he felt that it would be some time before he outgrew that. In 1876, however, his work as an inventor had developed so wonderfully that he decided to give up manufacturing and devote his time wholly to inventing.
He needed a more extensive laboratory, one situated in a place so out of the way of public travel that he would not have many visitors.

For the site of his new laboratory, he chose Menlo Park. The name has since come to be so closely associated with Edison that when we hear it mentioned we think of the phonograph, the telephone, the electric light, and all 6f the great inventions which were worked out there.

Thomas Edison in 1878

Thomas Edison in 1878

It was a quiet spot, about an hour's ride by railroad from New York city, where the inventor was frequently called on business. Here in an open expanse Edison had a modest dwelling and a vast laboratory erected.

This laboratory, a plain white frame structure was far from being a handsome building. Its owner's only wish was to have it spacious, well lighted and convenient. He spared no cost in fitting it up with the most improved mechanical apparatus for experimenting. He had a powerful engine to supply the force needed.

The workshop, a room one hundred feet long, was enough to delight the heart of a lover of fine machinery. There were great whirring, buzzing wheels, endless belts of strongest leather, beautifully finished lathes, milling machines, drills, and planers. There were all sorts of electrical machinery, splendidly made and kept bright and shining. But there were no electric lights and no telephone in the great laboratory unless, perhaps, in the mind of the inventor.

Upstairs was a chemical laboratory, a laboratory far beyond the brightest dreams of the newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railroad. Its walls were lined with shelves laden with rows of mysterious jars and bottles. The inventor made it a rule to keep at hand some of every chemical substance known. There were blowpipes, retorts, test tubes, and flasks without number.

Besides these rooms, there was a library. It was a large one well filled with standard and modern scientific works.

There was a small band of well-organized workers at Menlo Park. It included skilled mechanics, with a director at their head; scientific experimenters; with a scholarly professor at their head; a mathematician, a private secretary, and even a bookkeeper.

Thomas Edision's Home in Menlo Park

Thomas Edision's Home in Menlo Park

Guiding and controlling all, was Edison, the wonder worker, who could catch the lightning and hold if imprisoned in tiny glass globes, who could make it possible for one man to hear another talking hundreds of miles away, who could measure the heat of the stars, who could make a machine that would talk and sing and laugh like a human voice.

This man of almost magical powers, who worked at all hours of the night in the lonely laboratory, whence the sound of explosions and flashes of light more brilliant than sunlight, often issued, began to be regarded almost with a feeling of awe. People called him the "Wizard of Menlo Park.”

To those who worked with Mr. Edison, there was nothing awe-inspiring about him. He was not in the least spoiled by his success. He respected all parts of the work to which he had given his devotion, and the man who did the humblest portion of it well, was esteemed by him. He was not afraid of hard work himself, and although he had competent men to manage the business for him, always took an active part in the affairs of the shop.

He went about in. rusty work clothes stained with acids, and with hands discolored and scarred, inspecting everything, and lending a hand where things were not going just as he wished. Menlo Park was no place for a man who did not love his work so much that he could forget his personal appearance and comfort while busy.

On one occasion, a new man refused to perform a task, which Mr. Edison had directed him to do. He said that he had not accepted the position with a view of becoming a manual laborer. Mr. Edison with extreme courtesy begged his pardon, for having made an unreasonable request, and then did the work himself. That made the young man feel uncomfortable, but it taught him the lesson which all of Mr. Edison's employees had to learn sooner or later-the lesson of self-forgetfulness in work.

In the management of his business, Mr. Edison had conformed in many ways to ordinary business methods. But hours at Menlo Park were almost as irregular as at Newark. The inventor could not get over the belief that the man who never got so interested in his work that he failed to hear the twelve o'clock whistle at noon, or the six o'clock whistle at night, was a poor sort of fel1ow. For his own part, he had not outgrown his independence of the clock.

As the years passed, the· inventor's mind lost nothing of its youthful activity. He found it easy to keep everyone in the big laboratory busy working out his ideas. Whenever he thought of a possible improvement in one of his own inventions, or in a contrivance made by someone else, he made a note of it in a thick blank book. When one piece of work was finished this book always suggested innumerable ideas for further undertakings.

Sometimes Edison's inventions were pushed forward with amazing rapidity. An idea would occur to him in the morning. His draughtsmen would draw up the plans for it, and the workmen would make it in a single day.

He tells an incident to show how quickly he was able to transact patent business, not only at Washington, but in London. He made a discovery at four in the afternoon, telegraphed to his solicitor, and had him draw up the necessary specifications at once. Then he cabled to London, an application for a patent, and before he arose next morning received word that his application had been filed in the English patent office. To understand this speedy transaction, we must remember that while it was early morning at Menlo Park it would be noonday at London.

Frances M. Perry, “The Story of Thomas A. Edison: The Wizard of Menlo Park.” In Four American Inventors: A Book for Young Americans, New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: American Book Company, 1901, Pages 245-251.


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